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John Wesley Hardin, Bad or Misunderstood?

John Wesley Hardin was born near Bonham, Texas on May 26, 1853 to parents James “Gip” Hardin and Mary Elizabeth Dixson. Hardin’s father was a Methodist preacher, and in those days, preachers often had huge territories to cover to save souls, so they were known as “circuit riders.” In his autobiography, Hardin describes his mother as being “highly cultured.”

In 1859 the family moved and settled into the town of Sumpter, in Trinity County, Texas. The couple had 10 children, John Wesley was the second, three years younger than his brother, Joseph Gibson Hardin. His father became the local school teacher, in a school where John Wesley and his siblings attended. Even then, he was passionate in his beliefs; in 1862 when the Civil War raged, he tried to run away from home at the age of 9 to join the Confederate Army but was foiled in the end by his father. During his subsequent years he built a reputation for being a gunslinger, an outlaw, a killer, a “bad man.” But was he bad, or misunderstood?

Violence Was Common

Violence was common, a way of life in the west, and Hardin saw his first evidence of that when at the age of eight years old, he saw one man stab another to death. He later wrote this about the event: “Readers you see what drink and passion will do. If you wish to be successful in life, be temperate and control your passions. If you don’t, ruin and death is the result.” Perhaps he should have taken his own advice.

Trouble At School

The fact that his father was the school teacher didn’t stop him from getting into trouble in school. One of his first episodes was with another student who accused him of writing an insulting remark about a girl on the schoolhouse wall. Hardin denied it and in turn accused his accuser of being the author. The student charged at him with a knife. Hardin pulled his own knife and stabbed the student, coming close to killing him. He was nearly expelled for this incident.

Bad or Misunderstood?

First Kill

When he was 15 years old, he challenged his uncle’s former slave to a wrestling match and won. According to Hardin’s account, the following day the man ambushed him as he rode by. Hardin shot him five times and then rode to get help for the man, who died three days later. Since his father didn’t believe he would get a fair trial in the Union occupied state, where over a third of the police were ex-slaves, he ordered him to hide. When his hiding place was discovered, three Union soldiers were sent to arrest him. Hardin confronted them and in his own words written later, “…I waylaid them, as I had no mercy on men whom I knew only wanted to get my body to torture and kill. It was war to the knife for me and I brought it on by opening the fight with a double-barreled shotgun and ended it with a cap and ball six-shooter. Thus it was by the fall of 1868 I had killed four men and was myself wounded in the arm.”

Man On The Run

Hardin was now a fugitive, wanted by the law, teaming up once with outlaw Frank Polk. Polk was wanted for the murder of a man named Tom Brady, and a contingent of soldiers pursued the two men. Polk was eventually captured, but Hardin was not. The two events coming one after the other were the beginning of the legend of John Wesley Hardin, “The Dark Angel of Texas,” who claimed to have killed 42 men, only 27 of which have been substantiated.

Captured and Tried

On January 20, 1875, the Texas  Governor Richard B. Hubbard received authorization from the Legislature to offer a $4,000 reward for Hardin’s arrest. After the interception by the Texas Rangers, of a letter sent to Hardin’s father-in-law by his brother-in-law, Hardin was discovered hiding out on the Alabama-Florida border using the name “James W. Swain”. In his autobiography, Hardin admits using this name he picked up from a Town Marshal who married one of his cousins.

In March 1876 Hardin was involved in a quarrel with another man, and someone who stepped in to try to mediate the argument was wounded by Hardin. In November 1876 Hardin was arrested briefly for having marked cards in Mobile, Alabama. Two former slaves of his father’s, tried to capture Hardin in Florida in mid-1877. Hardin killed one and blinded the other.

On August 24, 1877, Rangers and local authorities confronted Hardin on a train in Pensacola, Florida. He attempted to draw a .44 Colt cap-and-ball pistol but it got caught up in his suspenders. The officers knocked Hardin unconscious. They arrested two of his companions and one Ranger  killed a third man, who had a pistol in his hand. Hardin claimed that he was captured while smoking his pipe and that his pistol was found under his shirt after his arrest.

Relatives Hanged

Injustice was rampant in those days of the west. Because of their association with Hardin, his friends and relatives were in danger of losing their lives. His brother Joe Hardin and two of his uncles were hanged, without cause, simply because they were related to him. Several other men were murdered because they were known to be his friends. Breaking a law wasn’t necessary, all you had to do was know or be related to John Wesley Hardin. Yet because he was loyal to those he loved, they were loyal to him, even to the death. That says something about the character of both him and his associates, because crooks will usually turn on each other. None of them ever did, and several lost their lives for it.

Always Willing To Learn A New Trade

During the time after the Civil War when everyone was scrambling to find ways to make money, his innate ability to find work and to do it well was envied by some. He was always curious to test his abilities in many trades. He was an inveterate gambler, making money consistently from plying that trade. He was also a successful cattle buyer and seller. But inevitably, when he tried to go about his business peaceably,  because of his reputation, someone would challenge him. After a gun battle he would be on the run from a posse whose members were often more crooked than he was. To be able to kill John Wesley Hardin was something they could brag about and build their own reputation. At times he was blamed for a death, when he was not even in the territory of the occurrence. Conflicting stories about this man raise the question; was he bad to the bone, or was he a product of the times, defending himself, family and friends?

“I never killed a man that

didn’t need killin’.”

~ John Wesley Hardin

Hardin Became A Lawyer

At the age of 40 and in poor health, Hardin was released from prison in February 1894, after serving 17 years of a 25 year sentence. Later that same year he was pardoned, as if his crimes never existed. He was literate, intelligent, and used his time of incarceration to study law, becoming a lawyer upon his release. He wrote his own autobiography, still available in modern times (link below) to any who may be curious about this man thought to be so evil. Perhaps he was, but there was another side to him. He was married, had children, and relatives who loved him. However, whenever any wrong was done to him, his family, or his relatives, he was quick to settle the score with his gun. It was the only justice that was final in the West.

The Life of John Wesley Hardin, As Written by Himself

A Cowardly Shot From Behind

Hardin never lived to see his autobiography published. He was shot in the back of the head while playing dice, by a cowardly man he’d had a dispute with in the early part of the day. The man knew he had no chance while facing Hardin, so he took him out the only way he knew he could, by shooting him from behind. The shooter, an ex-policeman named John Selman, was acquitted of murder, because the sentiment was that Hardin “needed killin’.” A local newspaper of the time stated:

 “If he was shot from the front, that was good shooting. If he was shot from the back, that was good judgement.”

Were the people who held that opinion any different than he was? The question remains to this day, was the law corrupt and crooked in those days? There were many who said it was. Hardin was only one of them, and quite probably the most dangerous threat because he was intelligent enough to plead his case in court and expose the law’s corrupt underbelly. Lawmen in those days were mostly taken from regular citizens who knew nothing of the law, and joined a posse as a way of making their name. Many didn’t care about law, but wanted a reward for bringing in a fugitive or for shooting a gunslinger.

“Dark Angel of Texas” Moniker

But in another viewpoint on John Wesley Hardin, a lawman called him “The Dark Angel of Texas.” The moniker stuck because it was dramatic and made for good storytelling. Rumored to be the most deadly outlaw in the west, it was said that he killed a man for snoring.

Still Caged After All These Years

Photo Credit
John Wesley Hardin’s Grave, Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, TX

So after reading all this, do you believe John Wesley Hardin was a bad man or just misunderstood? Do you believe he tried, after leaving prison, to make a better life for himself and his family? Do you believe that in the old west, there were lawmen who were as crooked or possibly more, than  John Wesley Hardin? Please leave comments on what you think about this if you can.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: No, I’m not related, just curious because of his last name.


I am Nancy Hardin, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. I’m a retired journalist and a veteran of the Women’s Army Corps of the Vietnam War era.

If you are interested in the lives of the outlaws of the old West, here are a few books you might like.